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Nicholas looking to make most out of opportunity


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Nicholas looking to make most out of opportunity

by John Manasso, Special to AtlantaFalcons.com

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When the Atlanta Falcons take the field for their season opener on Sunday, one of the most important starting positions on defense will belong to a player who totaled all of nine tackles during the 2008 season despite playing in every game. One might say that with third-year strong side linebacker Steve Nicholas, the personnel department and the coaching staff are taking a collective leap of faith.

In Nicholas, what the coaches see is a studious player, a high energy player and a physical player.

They see someone who can take what he has learned in the classroom and apply it on the field. In that sense, they believe their leap of faith to be little more than a bunny hop.

When it comes to testing faith, Nicholas, the sixth of eight sons of a minister, has weathered a far more serious trial. And because he has emerged with the best possible outcome from the experience last fall of having his wife live in a different city with his infant son who was awaiting a heart transplant, Nicholas is free to concentrate on football.

“It was definitely tough, man,” said Nicholas, 26. “A lot of praying. The organization being behind me and, I mean, my family, but it was a tough season. Very tough, very tough season.

“This year I can turn loose and pin the ears back and play football. I’m not worrying about this situation. You now what I mean? It was a tough situation last year.”

Nicholas is a central part of the Falcons’ gambit to get younger and faster on defense. In the three-man starting linebacker corps, Nicholas is the most untested commodity and he plays the position, as linebackers coach Glenn Pires explains it, that operates the most in space and on the edge, who will have to cover a wide receiver, as well as vertical passing routes.

Pires conceded that, to an extent, Nicholas will need to prove himself in regular season games. But Nicholas is inspiring confidence in those around him. Head Coach Mike Smith said Nicholas is a player that “we’re excited about at this point in time.”

Pires said the coaching staff has seen evidence that Nicholas has been able to transfer what he has learned in the classroom onto the field.

“You can see the carryover, you can see what he’s learning from the building and those things are carrying over,” said Pires, who has coached the position in one way or another at the NFL level for 10 years. “Now, experience is certainly the best teacher. He’s going to be gaining some experience. There’s going to be some on-field training, obviously, but like I said earlier what he’s doing up to this point he’s been very, very good.”

Veteran linebacker Mike Peterson said he thinks Nicholas can be the defense’s spark.

“When guys are tired and he’s coming in a base defense or whatever it may be he can be that energy we need,” Peterson said. “That’s what I’m pushing him [for], that’s what he need to bring to the defense.”

If that’s the case, it will represent a continued evolution for Nicholas. He made an impression in his 2007 rookie year -- when current Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was his positional coach. Nicholas made 37 tackles that season. Last year Nicholas’ role was more of a supplementary player, a back-up and special teams ace.

Not to mention what he had to deal with off the field.

“He was dealing with a lot of different issues last year, family issues, and I think he’s a different guy,” Smith said. “You can see he’s more focused on football and understandably so from the situation he had with his son last season.”

When last season started, Stephen Nicholas Jr. was nine months old. Local doctors diagnosed him with cardiomyopathy, which the American Heart Association defines as an inflammation of the heart muscle that causes it not to work as it should.

During the season, Nicholas would fly after Falcons’ games to be in Boston and often would not return until Tuesday night, the regular off day for NFL players. Nicholas’ son spent five months in Boston, from July to December, even though the operation was in mid-October. Now, coming up on 2, Nicholas said his son is “great, terrific.”

“You wouldn’t even know,” he said. “He’s so active. He’s a normal little toddler now, man.”

And his dad is free from worry.

If there is trait that would seem to define Nicholas, it would appear to be that of being grounded. Coming out of high school in Jacksonville, he was not recruited by Florida’s major in-state powers, owing, Nicholas said, to the lateness with which he earned the test scores to qualify for an NCAA scholarship.

The fact that Nicholas, now 230 pounds, only weighed 190 and that many schools were recruiting him as a safety might also have had something to do with it. When he was looking at prospective schools in 2002, South Florida’s football program was only five years old.

“When I went down on my visit to South Florida I didn’t look at what kind of facilities they had,” he said. “I looked at, ‘What’s the team like? What are y’all guys trying to do here?’ For one, to just be part of history… it was something I wanted to do.”

At South Florida, Nicholas’ defensive coordinator was Wally Burnham, who was on the staff of Florida State’s 1993 national championship team. Burnham, now the defensive coordinator at Iowa State, said Nicholas is the type never to draw attention to himself, on or off the field.

“The thing that made him grow so fast into such a good football player was that he was really into football,” Burnham said. “He set goals…He just worked so hard. He’d be in the meeting rooms watching tape by himself. He was always taking notes no matter how many times I covered something. He was always doing these kinds of things. He knew defenses as well as I did, checks and adjustments. Every year he got better and better. He’d take risks and deliver blows and get up for the next plays.”

Nicholas sees himself as just a cog in the machine. Asked what his goal is, he makes no lofty pretensions of stardom. He said he just wants to be consistent.

If Nicholas has been underappreciated throughout his career -- whether in college recruiting or being mentioned among up-and-coming NFL players -- Pires said it is only because Nicholas has yet to have the opportunity.

Now he does.

“He hasn’t been a starter yet and now he’s going to have that opportunity,” Pires said. “You’re always below the radar if you’re not under the bright lights at 1 o’clock.”

The bright lights will be shining on Sunday.

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